WASHINGTON (AP)—For the third time in seven months, the judgment of those who operate the nation's air traffic control system has been called into question and concerns have been raised that complacency may be causing controllers and their supervisors to bend rules.
While major air crashes have declined sharply over the last decade, thanks largely to improved technology, aviation safety experts say they are seeing signs that vigilance may have eroded.
"This is a stunning example of a lack of professionalism, not following the rules, not using commonsense," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Senate committee Thursday.
The FAA has declined to identify the controller, but a person with knowledge of the situation identified him Thursday as Glenn Duffy, a 20 year veteran of the job with experience at several of the big air hubs that serve New York. The person spoke with The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case. In the late 1990s, Duffy was a frequent critic of the FAA while serving as the union representative for controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The problems with safety and vigilance extends to airline pilots as well. In several accidents in recent years -- the crash of a regional airliner in upstate New York a year ago that killed 50 people is one example -- pilots broke a cardinal safety rule prohibiting nonessential conversation during landing approaches.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said he couldn't understand what the controller was thinking.
"You would think he would know better," said Bloomberg, a trained pilot. "It was certainly inappropriate."
Other recent incidents:
_In October, controllers in Minneapolis handed off responsibility for a Northwest Airlines jet without alerting the next controller that they had been unable to make radio contact with the plane. Supervisors also failed to follow procedures for alerting a national security communications network to the problem. As a result, the Airbus A320 carrying 144 passengers was out of radio contact for 69 minutes before the security network was alerted. Rules put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are supposed to trigger an alert when a plane can't be raised by radio for 10 minutes.
The larger issue at play in the incident, however, was the conduct of the cockpit crew on the Northwest plane, who flew more than 100 miles past their destination. The Federal Aviation Administration revoked the flying licenses of two pilots, who are now appealing to have them reinstated.
_Last August, an air traffic controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey who handed off a private plane to controllers at a neighboring airport failed to correct the plane's pilot when he read back the wrong radio frequency. Controllers at both airports later tried unsuccessfully to reach the pilot. The plane collided moments later with a tour helicopter over the Hudson River. Three people in the plane and six in the helicopter were killed. The Teterboro controller was chitchatting on the phone with a female friend until seconds before the collision. The controller's supervisor had left the airport to run a personal errand.
The incidents suggest a casualness about rules that undermines safety, said Carol Carmody, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and former FAA official.
Even more serious is that the controllers in the Teterboro and Kennedy incidents appear to have felt free to break rules, which suggests supervisors tolerated such lapses, said Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the incidents were "isolated occurrences" and not indicative of a broader safety problem.
The FAA is implementing a new program that encourages air traffic controllers to report safety problems, including their own mistakes, so that the agency can spot trends and act to prevent future problems, Brown said. To encourage reporting, controllers aren't punished for errors they identify.
The agency has had a similar program for pilots for nearly a decade.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, in speeches and congressional testimony, has called on pilots and air traffic controllers to create a professional atmosphere in cockpits and radar facilities and not to tolerate rule-breaking by colleagues.
The NTSB is concerned enough about the situation that it has scheduled a forum this spring on pilot and air traffic controller professionalism.
In a statement responding to the Kennedy incident, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association -- the union that represents controllers -- said it doesn't "condone this type of behavior in any way."
But Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general who has filed a lawsuit against the FAA on behalf of the families of five Italian tourists killed in the Hudson River collision, said there needs to be a strong message sent from the top. She suggested Babbitt and LaHood call "an all-hands-on-deck meeting and make sure air traffic controllers know it's every rule every time."
Associated Press writer David B. Caruso in New York City contributed to this report.